Absent

Overview

Dalal is a young woman living in a crowded Baghdad apartment with the childless aunt and uncle who raised her. In the same building, Umm Mazin, a fortune-teller, offers her customers cures for their physical and romantic ailments, Saad the hairdresser attends to a dwindling number of female customers, and Ilham, a nurse, escapes the stark realities of her hospital job in dreams of her long-lost French mother. Despite the damaging effects of bombings and international sanctions ...
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Absent

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Overview

Dalal is a young woman living in a crowded Baghdad apartment with the childless aunt and uncle who raised her. In the same building, Umm Mazin, a fortune-teller, offers her customers cures for their physical and romantic ailments, Saad the hairdresser attends to a dwindling number of female customers, and Ilham, a nurse, escapes the stark realities of her hospital job in dreams of her long-lost French mother. Despite the damaging effects of bombings and international sanctions on their world, all the residents try to maintain normal lives.

Hoping to bring in much-needed cash by selling honey, Dalal’s uncle becomes a beekeeper, enlisting Dalal’s help in the care of these temperamental creatures. Meanwhile, Dalal falls in love for the first time–against a background of surprise arrests, personal betrayals, and a crumbling social fabric that turns neighbors into informants.

Tightly crafted and full of vivid, unforgettable characters, Absent is a haunting portrait of life under restrictions, the fragile emotional ties among family and friends, and the resilience of the human spirit.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Absent opens a door to a view of Iraqi life we have seldom seen. With a compassionate eye Khedairi explores a community, damaged by wars and sanctions, struggling for survival.”
–Elizabeth Cox, author of The Slow Moon

“A fascinating book and a great pleasure to read: Betool Khedairi is a talented new voice in fiction.”
–Alaa Al Aswany, author of The Yacoubian Building

“Absent is an important book in the way that The Grapes of Wrath and The Kite Runner are important books. Betool Khedairi performs the miraculous feat of transforming Iraq from an abstraction into a world populated by real people devastated by the intrusions of an empire on the other side of the globe.”
–Sarah Bird, author of The Flamenco Academy

“A strong new voice in Iraqi literature.”
–Radio Free Europe

“Brilliant, funny and disturbing, Absent portrays an unforgettable struggle for dignity in a world under siege.”
–Teresa Carpenter, author of The Miss Stone Affair

Publishers Weekly

Iraqi-Scot novelist Khedairi (A Sky So Close) tells the story of Dalal, a young girl growing up in a crowded Baghdad apartment complex during the sanctions imposed on Iraq following the Gulf War. The deck is certainly stacked against Dalal: orphaned as a baby, she is raised by her self-absorbed maternal aunt and an uncle, and lives under a cloud of collective political anxiety. Dalal herself, as she reaches her 20s, has a facial paralysis, works several jobs by necessity and attends classes. A cast of kooky neighbors helps her find her way, but while her environment seems safe, it may harbor a menace-a Baath government informant. Time is nebulous in the book, with Dalal floating back and fourth between childhood and adolescence in a way that is by turns gorgeously dreamy and jarring. As the title suggests, Dalal, who narrates, is largely absent from the larger forces at work, and while her observations are sometimes poignant, she rarely takes action or even makes a decision, simply allowing things to happen to her. But Khedairi does paint a lucid and insightful picture of Iraq in the late 1990s. (July)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
An intimate picture of life in a Baghdad apartment building during the perilous 1990s (following the Gulf War) is gradually assembled in this colorful novel, originally published by a university press in 2004. Iraqi-Scottish author (A Sky So Close, 2001) and now Jordanian resident Khedairi presents her story as the arduous "education" of its narrator Dalal, a young woman raised by her aunt and uncle after her parents are killed by an exploding landmine. It's a compact saga of struggling to survive despite ongoing sectarian enmity and violence and a ruinous economic blockade. Attention focuses first on Dalal's childless Aunt Umm, a frequently choleric seamstress, and her Uncle Abu Ghayeb. The latter is a memorable comic character: a failed artist who surrounds himself with treasured oil paintings and reels from one impractical moneymaking scheme to another, eventually choosing to prosper as a beekeeper. Neighboring characters, all of whom lament the long-ago "Days of Plenty," include sagacious fortune teller Umm Mazin (who "reads" dregs in coffee cups, and counsels distraught women who have lost their husbands' love); gentle diabetic Uncle Sami, going blind because of the difficulty of procuring insulin; and their building's secretive new owner Saad, who supervises Dalal's pursuit of formal education, and in effect facilitates the loss of her innocence. Images of looming threats (notably, the sight of children playing with "leftover shrapnel" in the street) aside, the novel is primarily pictorial and virtually devoid of tension or plot until its closing pages, in which the presence of an informer in the building occasions a violent flurry of transformative events. Khedairi makes brilliantmetaphoric use of a "war" among Uncle Abu's bees, begun because "I must have distributed the food unequally amongst the different colonies."Initially sluggish, but not without rewards. Agent: Toby Eady/Toby Eady Associates
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812977424
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/10/2007
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.19 (w) x 7.95 (h) x 0.53 (d)

Meet the Author

BETOOL KHEDAIRI was born in Baghdad in 1965 to an Iraqi father and a Scottish mother. She received a B.A. in French literature from the University of Mustansiriya and then traveled between Iraq, Jordan and the United Kingdom. She worked in the food industry while writing her first novel, A Sky So Close, published in Arabic in 1999 and now translated into English, Italian, French and Dutch. She currently lives in Amman, Jordan.
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Reading Group Guide

1. On the first page of Absent we learn that Dalal’s uncle “didn’t follow the custom that dictates parents be named after their first-born child….Instead, he insisted that he should be called Abu Ghayeb, the father of the absent one.” What motivates this unusual choice, and how does it affect his adopted ‘daughter’ Dalal? What examples of “absence” and “the absent one” can you find in the novel and what is their significance?

2. Aspects of Absent are profoundly universal, such as the depiction of the fractious marriage between Dalal’s aunt and uncle, Dalal’s uncertainty as she ponders what to do with her life, and the resilience of her friends and neighbors who manage to stay hopeful and make a living under dire circumstances. What other aspects of the story and the characters did you find yourself identifying with?

3. Absent is set in the 1990’s, after the Gulf War, but the exact time period and conflicts are ambiguous. Why do you think that Betool Khedairi chooses to do this, rather than setting it during the war itself, or choosing a particular post-war event?

4. How would you characterize Dalal and Abu Ghayeb’s relationship and how does it evolve over the course of the novel?

5. What role does the fortune teller Umm Mazim serve in the novel, is she there for comic relief, or what else might she represent? Why do so many people take comfort in visiting her? What would you ask her, if you had a chance to visit her?

6. Dalal’s uncle, a former artist, places a high value on aestheticism. When he asks Dalal how she would measure beauty, she responds: “If things aren’t distorted, they may be more beautiful” (64). What does this tell you about Dalal’s feelings towards her facial disfiguration? How do you think her physical appearance shapes her as a character? How does it affect her romantic relationship with Adel?

7. Unlike many of her friends and neighbors, Dalal and her uncle have spent time in Western countries. How does Dalal’s family feel about the West, and the Allied nations in particular? How does this compare with the impressions of other characters? Were you surprised about their reactions?

8. Why does Dalal choose to study French literature and is there a special significance in the fact that Dalal is reading Flaubert when she first meets Adel?

9. The characters in Absent spend a lot of time reminiscing about the Days of Plenty. In what ways are the clashes between the new and old Iraq apparent in the novel?

10. Abu Ghayeb tells Dalal that there is much to learn from the bees that he keeps, a lesson that she passes along to Adel and Saad. How does this wisdom become particularly profound? How might the bees serve as a metaphor for life in Baghdad during the 1990s?

11. Three of Dalal’s most intimate relationships in the novel are with Ilham the nurse, Saad the hairdresser and his exciting friend Adel. What does Dalal gain from each of these three people, and what does she lose, in getting close to them?

12. Do you think the novel ends on an optimistic note? How, if at all, do you think Dalal will be able to play a role in the reshaping of her home city?

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